Hiromi Kawakami: The Briefcase – Sensei no kaban (2004)

Hiromi Kawakami is one of my favourite writers. Three of her books have been translated into German two of which are available in English as well. I loved both books I’ve read so far (Manazuru and Mr Nakano and the Women) and was looking forward to this third one which has been published last year in English.

I often hear people say they don’t know any Japanese literature or don’t know where to begin. I usually recommend Banana Yoshimoto as a first author but now I think Kawakami’s The Briefcase may be even a better starting point.

The Briefcase is a love story between a retired college professor and his former student Tsukiko. When you read “love story”, you may have some expectations but you will have to throw them overboard as nothing will quite match this story which is as far from a Western love story or romance as can be.

The professor or sensei and his former student  meet accidentally one evening in a bar. Tsukiko is 38 years old, a loner who doesn’t believe she will ever find true love. She isn’t too sad about this though, she is unconventional and likes to live on her own.

The professor is somewhat startled to meet a woman in such a bar and drinking a lot of sake at that but soon they are both delighted to find out that they like the same food and drinks and that they enjoy hanging out together. The relationship is very formal at first, nothing hints at a possible love story at all. Tsukiko is quite quirky and in the beginning the professor tells her constantly that she isn’t acting very ladylike, only she couldn’t care less. It becomes soon obvious that he isn’t less quirky. They never  make appointments, they just meet at the same bars week after week until one day pick when they a fight over something really silly. It’s only when they do not see each other any more for a long time that Tsukiko realizes she has fallen in love.

The way they slowly and carefully approach each other, and get to know each other is so lovely. They really take their time and only decide to be real lovers when they have spent a long time together and have seen each other at their worst. But they are also both very shy and not very experienced and have been on their own for a long time. Why the professor has been alone will only be revealed in the end.

The way this relationship is described is very Japanese. It’s filled with respect and an almost ritualized slow approach of another human being. None of them would ask the other any direct questions, the way they get to know each other is far more subtle. Through shared moments and mutual attention and observation.

There are many wonderful and typically Japanese elements which could have turned the book into a cliché if a lesser writer had attempted to write about them. Food is extremely important and we read about an incredible amount of different meals. Vegetables, mushrooms, fish we’ve never heard of are mentioned.

Japanese poetry, Haikus, the cherry blossom festival, calligraphy and many other things are very important as well and reading the book is a bit like a trip to Japan. Or at least like I would imagine it.

What I liked is how the book reads as if it had been painted with one of those very precise and fine calligraphy brushes. Kawakami can evoke an atmosphere and emotions in a few lines, and artfully captures how they are changing constantly. The story takes up almost a year and the change of seasons is captured as well as the change of emotions.

The end was a real killer, beautiful but quite sad. I highly recommend this wonderful and lovely book. It is a great introduction to Japanese literature, its sensibilities and esthetics.

I’ve read the book as a contribution to Tony’s January in Japan and Bellezza’s Japanese Reading Challenge.


Japanese Literature Challenge

Hiromi Kawakami: Manazuru (2006)

Manazuru is the first novel by Hiromi Kawakami that is available in English. She has been one of Japan’s most celebrated novelists since her first short story came out in 1994. I have read another one of her novels a couple of years ago. Many of her books are available in German and in French. (If you love literature in translation, especially Japanese literature, and you are able to read German and/or French, you have much more choice. I have for example read Hotel Iris by Yôko Ogawa, that came out last year in English, in a French translation almost ten years ago.).

The first novel by Hiromi Kawakami that I read is called Herr Nakano und die Frauen (Mr Nakano and the Women.) It’s a wonderful novel. A lot of what I liked in Herr Nakano is present in Manazuru too, still I wonder why they chose this novel to introduce Kawakami to English-speaking readers. Mr Nakano would have been a much better choice as it is much more typical for her writing. There are supernatural or dreamlike elements in Manazuru which are not present in her other books and which reminded me more of Murakami.

Manazuru is not easy to describe. It’s a mysterious book, filled with a dreamlike mood, shifting realities. Something very soft and gentle pervades it.  Still it’s very realistic. The story is told by Kei, a young woman who lives with her daughter and her mother in an apartment in Tokio. The three women live a very peaceful live, they share many intimate moments, cooking and eating together, stitching and knitting. They treat each other kindly but each of them leads her own life, of which the others know nothing. Kei thinks a lot about her relationship to her daughter and how unique it is. How she doesn’t love anyone like her with so much awkwardness. She thinks about what it means to have a child, physically. To feel her emotions because they once shared a body.

Kei’s husband Rei has disappeared ten years ago. Although she has been in a happy relationship with a married man, she has never forgotten her husband. She wonders always where he has gone, why he left or what has happened to him. At the beginning of the novel she decides to travel to Manazuru, a little seaside town where Rei has disappeared. When she arrives she feels a strange presence. A woman follows her, a woman who seems to be a ghost, whose density changes constantly. Sometimes the woman is just a shadow, sometimes Kei can touch her. She thinks this woman knows what happened to Rei.

Kei takes many trips to Manazuru all through the novel. Sometimes with Momo, her daughter, mostly on her own. Whenever she arrives there, she is in a dreamlike state that brings her very close to Rei. During her last trip she finds another village that is like a ghost village. Cranes are sitting on the dilapidated roofs (Manazuru means crane btw..) The houses have been abandoned. She thinks about the fact that an empty house is at first just empty but then, after several years, it gets a life of its own. Ivy will grow inside. Weeds  and many other plants will take over. It’s a bit like Kei herself after Rei abandoned  her. At first there was emptiness and loneliness and then she became someone else.

I liked Manazuru a lot because of its mood and because of the importance of moods. Kei doesn’t so much analyze her feelings or thoughts as describe her moods. They shift ever so lightly, just a little bit. They have the subtlety of scents, the same fleetingness.

What I love in Kawakami’s writing in general is her ability to capture those intimate moments in which hardly anything happens or is said, those moments during which people are sitting together, without talking and it still feels intimate and meaningful.

Hiromi Kawakami is one of the best authors  to start with for someone who isn’t familiar with Japanese writing because she is such a gentle writer. Her books are lovely and even tragic elements are toned down. We know her characters will make it in the end, move on, find meaning and all that stays from a tragic event is a feeling of bitter-sweet regret but no despair.

I read the book in German. I really love the cover. The woman is blurred, only the little flowers, (Immortelle, I think) at the bottom of the picture are in focus. It captures the mood of this novel much better than the English one in which the focus is on the woman.